Here’s a hypothetical: You and your three best friends are locked in the back room of a run down, neo-Nazi club. There’s a dead girl on the ground, and a terrified girl is standing over her body. A giant man is pointing a gun at all of you, promising not to shoot as long as you stay still while his bosses work everything out on the outside. You had absolutely nothing to do with the dead girl. You don’t even know her name. You were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, and now you’ve seen too much. The nice British voice emanating from the other side of the locked door is promising everything will be fine, but as far as you’re concerned this room will become your tomb if you don’t think of something fast. So, what do you do?
Except, of course, that’s not a hypothetical. It’s the nightmare scenario lived out by Pat (Anton Yelchin), Reece (Joe Cole), Sam (Alia Shawkat) and Tiger (Callum Turner) in Green Room, writer-director Jeremy Saulnier’s third feature-length film. I’ve yet to see his first two films, 2007’s Murder Party and 2013’s Blue Ruin, but I might need to get on that because Green Room is among the more self-assured thrillers I’ve seen in theaters all year, announcing Saulnier as a director to watch the same way 10 Cloverfield Lane heralded the arrival of Dan Tracthenberg.
We first meet Pat and his friends, who make up the punk band The Ain’t Rights, asleep in their beat-up tour bus, lucky to be alive since their lead singer and designated driver fell asleep in the middle of the night and let the bus veer off into a corn field. It’s just another crappy moment in the lives of these starving musicians. Soon they’ll be siphoning gas from cars in nearby parking lots and crashing on couches provided by college radio DJs/fanzine writers in exchange for exclusive interviews.
After one particularly pathetic show, they are ready to pack it in and call it a day on their tour of the Pacific Northwest, but they don’t have enough money to get home. They can’t afford to say no when the local DJ books them a show at a remote, neo-Nazi club, promising everything should be fine if they just stick with his cousin at the club, play their songs, take the money and leave as quickly as they came.
Obviously, things go horribly wrong, and we arrive at the nightmare scenario I described earlier. From that point forward, Green Room breaks off into a battle of wills staged across a locked door, the band plotting what to do from within the titular green room (with the assistance of the dead girl’s best friend Amber, played by Imogen Poots) while the club’s owner Darcy Banker (Patrick Stewart) orchestrates a cover-up and potential frame job, rallying his neo-Nazi troops around him and exerting his iron will with the extreme ease of someone who’s been doing this for a very, very long time.
Not to spoil too much, but that green room door doesn’t stay locked the whole time. However, even before the confrontation reaches that stage Saulnier deftly employs several tricks to masterfully build tension. For example, we begin the film solely following the band, but once they walk into the green room the camera starts following the neo-Nazi leaders as they quickly enter into damage control mode. By the time we cut back to the band in the green room we suddenly know way more about the situation than they do. This same trick is used in the opposite direction during a crucial moment near the finale when we are left completely in the dark about what the people in the green room have cooked up.
Beyond that, Saulnier uses our familiarity with Stewart against us, as if openly taunting, “Sure, he’s a neo-Nazi, but he doesn’t mean them any harm, right? How could he? He’s Captain Picard!”
It helps that Stewart plays Darcy as a man of level-headed conviction and honor. The actual person who killed the girl in the room isn’t even a party to the whole affair. They’re quickly identified and dismissed, with Darcy warning that they behaved selfishly. For Darcy, though, it’s the bigger picture that matters. His goal is to protect his community, and you can see why everyone in that community both loves and fears him. For example, in one sudden outburst of anger he assaults his right-hand man Gabe (a quietly compelling Macon Blair), but then immediately apologizes in the most lovable way possible. Moreover, he repeatedly makes a point of offering generous financial reward to those who will assist his cover-up efforts, and the tone he strikes is not of desperation but instead deep appreciation for the sacrifice he’s requesting.
If there’s a weakness to be found it might be in the characterization of the actual people stuck in the green room, i.e., the presumptive heroes of the story. There’s just enough in the early scenes to get a sense of who they are as people, but not enough for us to be particularly moved should any of them die. Based upon name recognition (i.e., which of the actors have you seen before?) as well as the amount of dialogue each of them receives, you can quickly guess who we are meant to pay attention to, and the most fascinating relationship in the bunch turns out to be the bond formed by Pat and Amber.
Consider this your warning: Things do eventually get very bloody. I had to look away more than once, but each time I did when I turned back I realized Saulnier had already cut away from the carnage, wisely leaving the absolute worst parts to our imagination while letting the horror play out on the faces of those witnessing the violence.
Even with all of that violence, the most terrifying moment in the whole story might be the thousand-yard stare on the face of the sociopath, neo-Nazi who killed the girl in the room. Before leaving, he steps toward Pat and compliments The Ain’t Right’s music, particularly the song they played while he was killing the girl. In that moment, you are as terrified for them as Pat is, and what plays out masterfully escalates in tension and flirts with offering sympathy for the devil through Patrick Stewart’s captivating performance before going out with the best final line of any film film I’ve seen this year.
I can think of no better way to say this: Green Room quite simply kicks ass.
89% – “Green Room delivers unapologetic genre thrills with uncommon intelligence and powerfully acted élan.”